Profiles In Nursing

Nella Larsen Imes (1891–1964)

Nurse administrator and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance

Two old photos of novelist and chief nurse Nella Larsen

Now considered one of the finest authors of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen Imes was also a public health nurse and a respected nurse administrator in New York City.

The 1918 Flu Epidemic

The biracial daughter of Danish immigrants (a white seamstress and a Black cook from the Danish West Indies), Nella Larsen grew up in a state of constant racial tension. In her youth, spent in both the U.S. and Denmark, she had few ties to Black culture, but being the only dark-skinned member of an otherwise white family carried significant social stigma.

In 1912, Larsen moved to New York to enroll in the nurse training program at Lincoln Hospital, and after graduating, became chief nurse at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

A few months before the 1918 influenza epidemic, Larsen joined the Bureau of Preventable Diseases of the New York City Health Department, conducting outreach and education, enforcing sanitation and quarantine rules, and watching for outbreaks of contagious diseases.

During both waves of the epidemic, Larsen and her fellow public health nurses worked almost 24/7 for weeks at a time, trying to hold the line against the overwhelming death toll.

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Harlem Literary Scene

Larsen remained with the health department after the epidemic subsided, but her experience left her looking for a change of pace. She married Elmer Imes, a Black physicist, and began writing for The Brownies’ Book, a magazine for Black children.

After moving to Harlem in 1920, Larsen became involved with the New York Public Library, which was a hub of the burgeoning Black cultural scene. She and her husband cultivated a circle of prominent literary and intellectual friends, both Black and white, and Larsen decided she wanted to write full-time. She published a number of short stories and a 1928 novel, Quicksand.

In 1929, Larsen published what’s now considered her magnum opus: Passing, an incisive, morally complex novel about a Black woman reunited with a childhood friend who’s now married to a racist white man and passing as white herself.

RN Career Events

The novels were well-received, earning her several awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed Larsen to travel to Europe. Unfortunately, accusations of plagiarism damaged her reputation, and by the late ‘30s, her writing career was over.

A Return to Nursing

Resuming her nursing career, Larsen joined Gouverneur Hospital on New York’s Lower East Side. Although she hadn’t practiced in two decades, she was still a superb nurse, swiftly earning a promotion to chief nurse. Only a few of Larsen’s closest friends knew about her former literary career, but nursing gave her a renewed sense of purpose and structure.

From 1954 to 1962, she was night supervisor for the entire hospital, earning one of the highest nursing salaries in New York City. Gouverneur was notoriously dilapidated, but Larsen proved a capable if strict administrator, with great compassion for the largely elderly indigent patient population.

Larsen’s last nursing job, at Metropolitan Hospital, ended after the administration discovered she was past the mandatory retirement age. She died in 1964.

Thirty years later, critics and scholars “rediscovered” Larsen’s books, which are now recognized as classics of the Harlem Renaissance. In 2021, Netflix released a feature adaptation of Passing.

AARON SEVERSON is the associate editor of Working Nurse.

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